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How Americans Help Fund The Taliban

In November of 2009, journalist Aram Roston published a story in The Nation titled "How the US Funds the Taliban" about how U.S. military contractors are forced to pay suspected insurgents to protect American supply routes. Roston is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. His 2008 book, The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi, is about the relationship between the U.S. government and one privileged Iraqi. Aram Roston joins Fresh Air host Terry Gross to talk about his investigation and how the business of war is sometimes like organized crime.


Other segments from the episode on January 14, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 14, 2010: Interview with Aram Roston; Interview with David Bianculli.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
How Americans Help Fund The Taliban


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The business aspects of war
sometimes look a lot like organized crime, at least that's what
investigative journalist Aram Roston has found. In October, he went to
Afghanistan and discovered that the trucking and security companies
hired by the U.S. to get supplies to military bases often have to pay
off the Taliban and other insurgents groups so they're not attacked on
the roads. That means some of the money our country is using to fight
the insurgents is being funneled to those insurgents.

Roston wrote about this for The Nation magazine with the support of the
investigative fund at The Nation Institute. His article has led to a
House subcommittee investigation. Roston is a former NBC news producer
who covered the Iraq War and Iraqi reconstruction, and he's the author
of the 2008 book "The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Life,
Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi."

Aram Roston, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, your article says that a lot of
money that the U.S. government is paying for logistics is eventually
getting funneled into payments to Taliban and other insurgents. What are
those payments going for?

Mr. ARAM ROSTON (Author): Well, the Taliban and other insurgent groups
and tribes and different warlords and commanders control the vast
regions of the country. Most of the country, in fact, are controlled by
the Taliban or insurgents or other tribal groups or warlords.

So for these logistics, these private logistics companies, these
trucking companies, to go through, they have to either fight those
groups, if those groups won't let them through, or they have to pay them
off. And what they've ended up doing most of the time is paying them

GROSS: And how much money are we talking about here?

Mr. ROSTON: Potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. It's a huge
chunk of the security part of the logistics operation. It's – how much
money is tough to say. Some people say 10 percent of the entire cost of
these logistics operations. Some people say it could be as high as 30
percent of these trucking costs, can basically be – end up in the hands
of Taliban.

GROSS: So the irony is pretty obvious here, that the people who we're
fighting, the Taliban, are actually profiting on our being there because
we're paying them off.

Mr. ROSTON: Yeah, it's a huge irony, and it's really worse than irony.
It's in some cases just funding the same people you're fighting. So
you're enabling the people you're supposed to be fighting.

GROSS: And let's talk a little bit more about why this is happening. You
say the companies that ship American military supplies across
Afghanistan aren't allowed to arm themselves with any weapon heavier
than a rifle. What is this regulation, and why does it exist?

Mr. ROSTON: Well, it exists for a very good reason. It exists so that
you don't have wild private security contractors blowing up the
countryside. You know, there's got to be restrictions on private
security, and in Afghanistan there's more restrictions on private
security than there were in, say, Iraq. It's actually technically
regulated by the Afghan government, and so legally they're not allowed
to shoot anything heavier than an AK-47.

The problem is, of course, they complain, well, we can't fight off these
groups with these weapons. These groups have – you know, the Taliban –
they're an army. The insurgents, these are guerrilla forces. They've got
RPGs and huge, heavy machine guns. The security companies say they can't
protect these logistics, trucking convoys without heavier weapons.
That's their argument.

But the point is if you allow them to have heavier weapons, they might
be, you know, by accident shooting up villagers or causing civilian
casualties, and it would be a major problem.

GROSS: Now, your article looks at two levels of companies in
Afghanistan. One is the trucking companies that are getting supplies to
American bases, and the other is the private security companies that are
supposed to be protecting the trucking companies. Who exactly is making
the payments to the Taliban and other insurgent groups? Is it directly
the trucking companies? Is it directly the security companies, or are
these so many layers it's hard to tell who's actually making the

Mr. ROSTON: There are a lot of layers, but really, it's apparently the
security companies that do most of the negotiations. It's their job to
do the security. So they reach accommodations with whatever power it is
that controls the countryside through which they're driving.

And in Afghanistan, somebody always does. Someone controls that section
of road. It's not like a toll, but it's understood that one commander
will control this section of road, and that's the one who has to be
paid. And the security company is usually the one that facilitates that,
and they have to do it whether they do it through tribal connections,
whether they do it through other connections. It's got to be done or
they'll get attacked.

In some cases, too, they say it's more like extortion than pure payoffs.
In other words, the understanding is you pay them or they'll attack you.

GROSS: Why don't we do airlifts and kind of circumvent the warlords and
Taliban and insurgents who control the roads in Afghanistan?

Mr. ROSTON: I mean, the quantities we're talking about are tremendous.
The quantity of supplies are huge. There just isn't enough helicopters
and landing strips and all that to accommodate it.

Even now, apparently, you know, airlift capability is stretched a little
thin in terms of getting special operations forces where they need to go
and all that stuff. So if you end up demanding everything like toilet
paper, uniforms, ammunition, you know, Humvees and MRAPs, those big
mine-resistant vehicles, if you insisted on airlifting them, it would be
basically unfeasible. So they have to truck it. It's – trucking is
traditionally the way you transport things in Afghanistan.

GROSS: You know, to be a trucker in Afghanistan must be really wild. I
mean, there is insurgents all over. Maybe you pay them off, maybe you
haven't, but it's pretty dangerous. What's it like to drive a truck?

Mr. ROSTON: It's really hairy. I mean, you can see – when you're in
Bagram Airbase and such – and on the road anywhere, you can see these
convoys going back and forth. They're brave people and they're really
great truck drivers. They decorate their trucks. They elaborate – you
know, sort of with these posters and such and paintings and stuff, and
then they – but they treat their trucks really well.

They know their business like nobody else, and there's no – most of
Afghanistan, there's no roads, really. The roads aren't what you'd
consider roads. Some roads exist now, and they've been built better than
they were, but these people have to operate – they're been operating
this way for a long time. They're good at doing it, but large numbers of
people get killed in this field a lot.

If they're attacked or whatever happens, if a truck breaks down, the
convoy, I'm told, just leaves them. They just go on. I've seen also the
way deals get done. I mean, I was just – I was meeting people in a
restaurant, and you know, the way they were just talking about how you
do these trucking deals, they would sort of just argue about it. You
know, I can get you 100 trucks at such and such. It's all just people
talking as opposed to some - business the way you think about it here
these days, with bids going back and forth and elaborate documents. It's
just sort of word of mouth.

GROSS: Now, have you gotten anybody from the security companies in
Afghanistan or anybody from the American military to say on the record
that what you say is being done is actually being done, that money from
the Defense Department is eventually getting funneled to Taliban and

Mr. ROSTON: Almost everybody wanted their name not to be used. One guy
did let me use his name. He worked for one company, and he's in the
article, in The Nation article, and he describes how it happened, and he
said, I'm quoting here: If you ask me not to pay the insurgents, the
risks of my being attacked increase exponentially.

GROSS: And what about the military? Did you talk to people in the
military, and what did they have to say?

Mr. ROSTON: The military turns a blind eye to a certain degree. Most of
them seem to know that this is happening. On the record I quoted one
colonel, who is in Wardak Province, and he said: I know it is what it
is. But he said as an American soldier, it repulses him, I think was the
word he used. But he said he knows it's happening, and he knows it is
what it is. It's necessary because the resources are spread so thin.

But you know, he pointed out the ultimate fact here. Americans and
Afghans hate the idea that this is happening, but they see it as a
necessary evil. If you even look at the military's response to me in the
article, in that article, one of the things that the military spokesman
in the end said was, well, we don't have that much visibility into the
relationship between these prime contractors and their subcontractors,
or the subcontractors and other people.

And that's kind of – well, it's kind of like saying we don't know where
the money's going after it goes to the prime contractors, and it's kind
of like saying we don't really look into it that deeply. And that's the
real problem.

GROSS: So you're saying the security companies subcontract to other
companies, and it might be the subcontractors who are actually making
the payments to the insurgents.

Mr. ROSTON: Yeah, sure, that's the way it is. It's often subcontractors,
and security companies, by the way, there, are tough sometimes to
define. As one big security company official told me, in Afghanistan
every warlord has his own security company. So somebody will call his
militia a security company.

GROSS: I see. So you could be hiring a security company that's really
like a warlord's private militia.

Mr. ROSTON: Yeah, and I describe one guy in the article, Commander
Rahoula(ph), who I say controls this long stretch of road between Kabul
and Kandahar, which is a really key piece of road because that's where
everything has to go to get south and west to where the fighting is.

But no one on the American side really knows much of anything about him.
Most of them don't even know he exists. Most American military people
don't even know he exists, and yet he's crucial to the war zone in this
way because he's the escort commander who takes all these supplies

GROSS: Is he a warlord?

Mr. ROSTON: He – it's – you know, warlord's such a term of art. Some
people say it's fair to call him a warlord in that he controls his own
group of men who are accountable to nobody but him, it seems. Is he
really a warlord? It's such a tough term to define. He's what they call
a commander there. You know, it's a more common term.

GROSS: Right, commander meaning he has his own militia?

Mr. ROSTON: Yeah, commander meaning he fights. He's not in the U.S. – I
mean, he's not in the Afghan military or in the Afghan military
structure at all. He's private. Before he allied himself with this
company, he was freelance. So it's more like the old-fashioned term, and
warlord's just a little too – I'm not sure he reaches the status of a
warlord, if that makes sense.

You know, how big a force does one need to be a warlord? I'm not trying
to hedge here, but do you see what I mean? In Afghanistan, things are so
complex. He's a fighter, and he does – his loyalties are to his employer
right now and to the people who pay him to get those trucks through.

GROSS: My guest is investigative reporter Aram Roston. His article, "How
the U.S. Funds the Taliban," was published in The Nation. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is investigative reporter Aram Roston. We're talking
about his reporting on how trucking and security companies contracted by
the U.S. in Afghanistan are often forced to pay off the Taliban and
other insurgents who control the roads.

Now, one of the companies that you focused on in your article is a
company called Watan Risk Management. What does this company do, and
what area does it work in?

Mr. ROSTON: To me they're fascinating. They're run – basically owned by
two brothers, the Popal brothers. There's Ahmad Rateb Popal and his
brother Rashid Popal. I describe a little bit about their backgrounds,
and they're very intriguing, very apparently charismatic men. They both
lived in America at some point. Ahmad Rateb Popal, who is the chairman
of the company, he actually did almost 10 years in federal prison in the
U.S. for a drug offense, from 1989 to 1997. So...

GROSS: This is like importing heroin? Was that it?

Mr. ROSTON: It was a heroin charge, exactly. His brother was also
convicted but didn't do any time. Later, Ahmad Rateb Popal was sort of
seen visibly during the American bombardment and the initial stages of
the Afghan war because he was the interpreter for the Taliban's
ambassador in Pakistan, and at that point he had a huge beard.

He's a very interesting guy. He's got one eye patch. One of his arms is
missing, most of his – another of his hand is missing, and that's
because of injuries sustained during the war against the Soviets.

After that, he reappeared at Watan Group, and Watan is now this really
influential, really important company, and he's a businessman, and what
I say is that these two brothers run Watan Risk Management, and I say
it's one of the most important security companies in Afghanistan because
it controls that road from Kabul all the way down, you know, to Kandahar
and Ghazni, and this is where all the American supplies need to get if
they're going to get to those forward operating bases and those combat

And Watan Risk, it's a licensed security company, but because it hires
this commander, it's able to basically get these convoys through, and
what I say is virtually every trucking company has to use them. They
have to use that company along that stretch of road.

Since the article, Ahmad Rateb Popal, he wrote a letter to The Nation.
He explained – he said, you know, he was convicted of the drug offense,
but he said it was a cultural misunderstanding, and he said he
represented – he helped the Taliban as an interpreter but mainly because
he was a friend of theirs rather than because he was in any way a
Taliban himself.

And he said – he admits, in a way, that a lot of companies do pay off
the Taliban, maybe this is a problem. He says his company doesn't. He
says his company fights, and he says Watan Risk Management loses 50
people a month in fighting to secure these American supply lines, which
is a huge number of people.

I should point out one more thing about the Popals that may not be
insignificant. They're cousins to the president of Afghanistan, Hamid

GROSS: And what do you think is the significance of that?

Mr. ROSTON: Well, just that they are from an influential tribe. You
know, it's unclear that they have that much of a connection with the
president, but what is clear is everybody in Afghanistan knows that. So
one can try to imagine how important that is when you're doing business
there. To be a cousin of the president is good.

GROSS: So if you stand back and look at this company, Watan Risk
Management, and you see the background of the brothers who own it, their
connections to President Karzai, they say they don't pay off insurgents,
you wonder if they do. So what's the moral of this story? What does it
say about how things are working in the private security industry that
is protecting trucks bringing American supplies?

Mr. ROSTON: To me, what it says is this. The big picture is in the
beginning – during an invasion or the first months of something, it's
understandable if you don't know exactly where all the money's going,
you know, who the security companies are, where you're buying your food,
your supplies and all that stuff.

But eight years in there should be accountability, and people should
know everything about where the American funds are going, because it's
not a new war. There should be a process in place. There should be
visibility. People have to know. There's a lack of that. People simply
don't – the American military in many cases isn't aware of how the
process works.

If they are aware, they're turning a blind eye to it. That I think is
the main moral of the story. The other part that I think is really key
is there's this network of insiders whose business prospects have
blossomed over the years because whether it's their connections or
because they know how to do business with the right people, a lot of
people are getting rich off the Afghan War.

GROSS: What reaction have you gotten to the story from the military and
from Congress?

Mr. ROSTON: Congress has started an investigation into this. A
subcommittee in the House began a preliminary inquiry, and they said
they found enough evidence to find out that this – that it merits a full
investigation, and they've sent out letters to the trucking companies
that I named and some others. They sent out a letter to the military,
and they say they're going to pursue it as hard as they can.

How quickly it'll happen, who knows, but they're trying. The American
military, I don't know. Everything is so divided in terms of how
contracting works. Oversight is unclear, and it's been that way in
Afghanistan. I know there are a lot of efforts to fix up the holes in
oversight to send more investigators and auditors there, but it's been
such a dilemma over there to get that done.

And there's been massive – a lot of people, a lot of American military
people really were glad I did the story. They really are – they're upset
by this. Nobody wants to be doing, wants to be funding the very enemy
that they're fighting.

GROSS: Now, we've been talking about the article that you wrote for The
Nation called "How the U.S. Funds the Taliban." You went to Afghanistan
looking for how insiders are making money on the war, and you've written
about that as well. You have an article called "An Afghan Lobby Scam,"
and I'd like to talk to you about that, and you know, in that you look
at how some insiders are making money off the war and trying to make
more money. You in that article focus on one particular company called
NCL Security Services. Just tell us what the company is. Let's start

Mr. ROSTON: NCL is a company that was founded by the son of the Afghan
defense minister, General Rahim Wardak(ph), and the son's name is Hamid
Wardak(ph), and he's a brilliant young American-Afghan who lives in the
D.C. area, and he started this company to do contracting in Afghanistan.

GROSS: So what kind of contracts has NCL gotten from the U.S. military?

Mr. ROSTON: They've gotten contracts to protect bases there, Afghan
National Army bases, and a Special Forces base there too. And that's,
again, one of the peculiarities of recent wars. You mentioned the way
that trucking is privatized, but also, you know, perimeter security of
government bases is now contracted out to private companies.

In Afghanistan, they give it to local Afghan companies, and his company
won a couple of these, where they provide sort of armed security guards
to protect military installations, to protect the very military that's
doing the fighting.

So it's intriguing, but then he won part of a contract called host-
nation trucking, this host-nation trucking company contract that I was
writing about. He was one of six companies that won.

At first – it was a pretty big contract. It was huge, in fact. It was a
total of $360 million split between these six companies. But then after
the first surge of 2009 – if you remember, there was a surge of troops –
the U.S. military, over the summer, they increased this contract
tremendously to over $2 billion. So each of these companies, suddenly
they got, you know, a massive amount of money. I mean, his share of it,
or NCL's share of it, the defense minister's son's company, their share
of it would be about $360 million over two years. That's a huge contract
– because the U.S. military suddenly realized it had more of a
requirement for trucking than it thought a few months earlier.

GROSS: Aram Roston will be back in the second half of the show. His
article, "How the U.S. Pays the Taliban," was published in The Nation.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


I’m Terry Gross, back with investigative reporter Aram Roston. We’ve
been talking about his article in The Nation called “How the U.S. Pays
the Taliban.” It’s about how the trucking and security companies in
Afghanistan that are contracted by the U.S. to deliver supplies are
often forced to pay off the Taliban, who control the roads. So millions
of U.S. dollars are going to the people we’re fighting. When we left
off, we were talking about one of the companies that received a major
contract from the U.S. from trucking called NCL Holdings.

It’s run by Hamed Wardak, whose father is the defense minister of
Afghanistan. Roston says the company’s most recent contract was for $360
million over two years.

Now, one of the things you’re looking into with NCL Security Services is
their relationship to a lobbying group that was recently created, they
opposed the deadline that President Obama has set for taking troops out
of Afghanistan. And what is the question you are raising about this
lobby group?

Mr. ROSTON: The issue was you’ve got a defense contractor - the
executive of a defense contract and that executive is basically the son
of the defense minister of Afghanistan. But he becomes more than a
defense contractor. He becomes an advocate for what the U.S. should do
in Afghanistan. He becomes a proponent of particular things in
Afghanistan. And he forms a group called the Campaign for a U.S.-Afghan
Partnership. And that campaign pushes for more involvement in
Afghanistan and sort of different engagements and it pushes to support
the Afghan National Army, which is basically overseen by this fellow's -
his father, General Rahim Wardak, who runs the Ministry of Defense.

What intrigued me was I obtained a document from a law firm. The law
firm and lobbying firm is called Patton Boggs. It’s one of the biggest
lobbying firms in Washington, if not the biggest. It wrote a memo to
him, to Hamed Wardak, the head of NCL and the son of the Afghan defense
minister, and it was a confidential document, but I obtained it, and it
basically laid out a plan for how it could achieve his foreign policy
objectives, which apparently were, you know, a long-term commitment to
Afghanistan and some other things, including finding an alternate
candidate to lead Afghanistan.

But one of the first things that really intrigued me was that the
lobbying firm, Patton Boggs, said they recommended, they said, as a
first step, that they set up a coalition, a group. They called it a face
- to be the face of their campaign. And that group, they said, would
basically then get the message across, is that group, they said, would
be the client of Patton Boggs, okay? They wrote this memo on January
30th of 2009, about 10 days after President Obama’s inauguration, when
people were really trying to figure out what is Obama going to do in

So they wrote this memo to Hamed Wardak. And that really intrigued me
and I showed it to people and what they were saying is this is basically
a road map for how to create a fund group that would basically pretend
to be a lobbying group, a grassroots type of campaign, but really served
the interests of the guy who hired the law firm, Hamed Wardak.

GROSS: Hamed Wardak says that the group has 3,000 members, and you’re
saying that a group that appears to be this grassroots lobbying group
representing Afghan-Americans is really a front group for the special
interests of one man or one company or other companies that are – that
have similar interests and that interest is in American long-term
commitment in Afghanistan, because that will mean the American military
will continue to pay this group and other groups like it.

Mr. ROSTON: That would make sense. But really, you know, ideologies are
tough to obviously parse out. You know, often you’ll find people – their
ideology coincides with whatever helps them financially, right? Or their
business tends to work in line of their ideology. So I’m not saying, oh,
Hamed Wardak believes this just because he’s profiting from it. But what
I am saying is the evidence is there that this group, which represents
itself as sort of a group of, you know, concerned Afghan-Americans and
so on, was set up by one particular high-paid lobbying firm in
Washington - Patton Boggs is a law firm in Washington - basically for
Hamed Wardak.

GROSS: So what are the implications of that? What does that mean? Does
that – do you think that that means that they should not have any
influence on Capitol Hill or that they should be taken less seriously...

Mr. ROSTON: No, no, no.

GROSS: ...because they were created by a law firm as opposed to – I mean
they were created by a law firm - the law firm suggested the idea, but
the law firm was hired by Wardak to come up with ideas like this.

Mr. ROSTON: Right. Let me just...

GROSS: Basically hired them in the first place, yeah.

Mr. ROSTON: Exactly. If I can go through, well, what do I think, I think
it’s all fine. I just think it’s good to know. And one official I met,
one legislative aide said, you know, he met with Hamed Wardak and he was
introduced to Hamed Wardak by Patton Boggs and the thing was he didn’t
know that Hamed Wardak was a defense contractor. He just knew he was –
he knew he was the defense minister’s son, but when he was introduced to
him as a representative of a group, CUSAP, he didn’t know he was a
defense contractor. And that is important to know.

But if I could - I spell in this story, I think, how it worked. And I
just - what really intrigued me was it’s almost – it provides insight
into how Washington works perhaps, and you normally don’t get this - you
don’t get this kind of evidence of how these lobbying groups may be set
up. That’s what intrigued me, because it’s a – the first step in
achieving your objectives is to set up a group that will be a face of
the campaign. That’s what Patton Boggs said in the memo. So then maybe
six days or so after they wrote that memo, Patton Boggs’ lawyers went to
incorporate it, the Campaign for U.S. and Afghanistan. They set up the

And then another - maybe another week later or so that group then became
Patton Boggs’ client. Which I just found interesting and fascinating
because it sort of shows how - maybe how money flows in Washington, and
the real thing I thought was interesting is it’s one thing to hire a
lobbying firm to get, say, you know, a provision in a bill or an earmark
for your company or something like that, but to try to affect the entire
foreign policy of the United States is a different ball game; that’s
really – it’s a big deal and it’s interesting.

GROSS: Who are the people on the board, anybody significant?

Mr. ROSTON: Well, that was intriguing. One of the most significant guys
was Milt Bearden. Milt Bearden is a legendary former CIA official who
worked in Pakistan on the campaign against the Soviets during those
days. He was, you know, he sort of featured in “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
You can find a bit about him. He also wrote a book himself with a New
York Times writer, James Risen, about the whole Soviet War and about
Afghanistan. So he is a very important figure in Washington on the
Afghan issue. He's a friend of Richard Holbrook. He has the ear of lot
of generals, because he had lot of insight into Afghanistan.

And everybody tells he’s got a lot of integrity, very interesting guy.
He is on the board of - or was on the board - of CUSAP, the Campaign for
U.S.-Afghan Partnership. And he was also on the advisory board of NCL
Holdings. I say was because now that my stories have come out, his name
has disappeared from their Web sites. I don’t know what that really
means because he’s not returning my phone calls. But it’s interesting
because Milt Bearden - it sort of gets into the sort of how things work.
Milt Bearden, as I mentioned, was in the CIA during the ‘80s and he
helped supply the Mujahideen.

One of his contacts there was Rahim Wardak, who was a Mujahideen leader
at that point. And he helped get the American supplies and such into
Afghanistan from Pakistan. And now, of course, Rahim Wardak is the
defense minister of Afghanistan. So he’s worked with the Americans
before. And then it was intriguing to me that Milt Bearden was working
with his son, with Rahim Wardak’s son, on these various efforts.

GROSS: Is there a next step in the stories that you’re following?

Mr. ROSTON: I think so. I think it needs more work. I mean I think that
we need to really understand who these payments are going to. Just
because we don’t know who these commanders are - Afghans know who these
commanders are. We can learn. I mean, we - I think not just, you know,
myself a reporter, but others, I think the American military, if it
wanted to, could try to unravel where the money's going. And somehow - I
mean, you can try to delineate which commanders, what are their names,
what are their cell phone numbers, how much money they’re collecting per
truck. I try to describe some of that in the article.

I try to describe how it works. I name one commander, but there were
others, and I think that’s what the next step has to be, because it’s
such an important part of these things. We - the U.S. military has tried
to shut down the funding for the Taliban, but do not look at this part
of it is to really, you know, miss this - create this huge gap, this
huge hole where they're getting money.

And I note again, I’m not the only person saying this, you know. There
are - it’s not, as I put it in the article, American military officials
talk about it. And a top Afghan security official discussed it. It’s
really sort of not in dispute that it's happening, but just more detail
needs to be obtained about it.

GROSS: Aram Roston, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ROSTON: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Aram Roston’s articles, “How the U.S. Pays the Taliban” and “An
Afghan Lobby Scam,” were published in The Nation.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
David Bianculli On The Battle Of The Late Night Titans


In case you missed last night’s round of jokes about the talk show wars,
here is a good one from Conan O’Brien.

(Soundbite of TV show, “The Tonight Show”)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CONAN O’BRIEN (Host): You know, I’m trying very hard to stay
positive here. And I want to tell you something. This is honest. Hosting
“The Tonight Show” has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream come for
me. And I just want to say to the kids out there watching, you can do
anything you want in life. Yeah. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Ouch. Well, Conan O’Brien and the other late night hosts have had
some great cutting jokes about the Leno versus O’Brien showdown. But
financially, and perhaps historically, it’s no laughing matter. Our TV
critic, David Bianculli, is here to explain the latest and what’s likely
to happen next. David, what is happening now in late night?

DAVID BIANCULLI: It’s amazing. The gloves are absolutely off. It’s no
surprise, or it wasn’t a surprise to a lot of people, that "The Jay Leno
Show" in prime time was doing so badly for NBC, the network, and as a
lead-in for the late night news affiliates, that it wasn’t going to last
too much longer. So NBC announces that it'll be gone just before the NBC
Olympics next month and not come back. But rather than just cancel Jay
Leno, they also announced at the same time that Jay Leno will be moving
to 11:30, which is where Conan is right now with “The Tonight Show.”

And the idea was that Conan would just allow “The Tonight Show” to slip
back to midnight or after midnight. And Conan, just the other day, sent
out a release saying, well, thanks but no thanks, the legacy of “The
Tonight Show” is too important. So now it’s a Mexican standoff. There's
not much drama in it in terms of the outcome. But there's a lot of drama
because this is the second time that Jay Leno has fought for “The
Tonight Show” and won it over sort of the guy who put in the years in
the program behind “The Tonight Show” to earn the slot.

GROSS: You know, last month when we did our end of the year wrap-up, you
were talking about the year in television, 2009...


GROSS: ...year in television. And you predicted that Jay Leno was likely
to loose his 10:00 show, because of such a financial disaster and
ratings disaster for affiliates, and that he would maybe ask for his old
time slot back. And I thought - I didn’t say it, David - but I was
thinking that’s preposterous. And then I read that’s exactly what was
happening and I thought, wow, David was right...

BIANCULLI: Yeah, well...

GROSS: And I still felt like, wow, that’s preposterous, how do you do

BIANCULLI: It is preposterous and I remember your saying, well, what
about Conan?

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Which is exactly the question, and that’s how the country is
reacting now, which is fascinating to me, because not that many people
were watching Conan when he was on “The Tonight Show” or NBC wouldn’t be
playing this game of chicken with him. You know, in the months before
Jay Leno started his prime time show, Conan O’Brien lost so many viewers
on the “The Tonight Show” that David Letterman started winning. And now
he's number one in late night, where he was number two for years and
years against Jay.

So there's some ground lost there, but right now Conan has an amazing
amount of popular support. And I think there's a larger picture there,
because it’s like NBC is the big stupid boss that isn’t rewarding years
of loyalty. And there are many of us who can relate to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. And I think Jay Leno is losing popularity. He is the butt
of so many jokes now, and hey, Jimmy Kimmel did his show as...

BIANCULLI: A whole hour...

GROSS: ...and he pretended to be Jay Leno.

BIANCULLI: Yes. He lisped his way through the entire hour as Jay Leno.
And Chevy Chase, who had a Fox late night show that lasted five weeks,
came on disguised as Conan O’Brien, and they did that for a couple of
minutes. So everybody is taking shots at this. And the Conan clip that
you played at the beginning, that’s a brutally honest joke. I mean he is
now, you know, everybody is pointing to Jay Leno as, you know, the snake
in the grass.

GROSS: Yeah, as being like selfish, you know, I want my territory back.


GROSS: So, would you think there is any chance now that Conan is kind of
winning the popularity race in the Leno versus O'Brien showdown…


GROSS: …do you think there's any chance NBC is going to reverse its
decision and…

BIANCULLI: Reverse its decision again?

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, no.


BIANCULLI: But I really don't think so. I think that it's sort of like
you can't let the terrorists win, kind of thing…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Just as an employee - NBC cannot back down from what it has
said it would already do or else in every contract negotiation from now
on, NBC is doomed. But here is the scenario that's not clear yet.
There's still the negotiations - the last shoe a drop is how NBC and
Conan O'Brien will resolve this.

GROSS: What are the possibilities?

BIANCULLI: One possibility is that they give Conan a penalty bonus
that's in his contract of, you know, zillions of dollars, you know, 25-
30 million something like that - although I don't have the exact figure
- to say okay, go away nicely, you know, a nice orderly transition. And
Conan will probably negotiate for - to get any sort of removal of a non-
compete clause, so that he can very quickly, if he wants to, go over to
Fox or go to cable or something and show up again.

That's if NBC and Conan play nicely to end this. But nothing says they
have to and if they don't NBC could be really nasty and say there's
nothing in your contract that says that "The Tonight Show," that you are
obligated to perform for us under the contract, has to show at 11:30.
Nobody ever thought it would be moved. So, if you don't continue to do
the show for as long as we want you to, you're in breach of contract.
So, if you don't be a good puppy and do it at midnight, how about we sue

So, who knows? That's outrageous to think about. But so was what we
talked about last month and that happened, so, I don't know. Another
possibility is that Conan could just walk away from this dream that he
had for a while and didn't get to succeed at doing, and just say maybe
that's enough of me at the late night game. And go off and do something
else, especially if he gets enough money that he never has to work

GROSS: Well, if he goes to Fox…


GROSS: …what's the plan, an 11 o'clock show and is Fox really serious
about that?

BIANCULLI: It might. Everybody is talking about 11 o'clock, but 11
o'clock pits him directly against Jon Stewart.

GROSS: Exactly.

BIANCULLI: You know…

GROSS: It's his audience.

BIANCULLI: Yeah it might make more sense for him to start at 11:30 and
go directly against Jay. But with a show that will capitalize on his new
found sympathy and be a lot edgier because it's Fox and maybe billed
that way. But even with all of the sympathy he is getting now and the
viewership spike he is getting, Letterman, is still ahead in late night.
So, more people are talking about this than are watching it.

GROSS: How is Jay Leno handling this? I mean, you know, he is the butt
of everybody's jokes right now. I watched a little bit of the show last
night, the opening monologue…


GROSS: …and I have to say he didn't look very good. He seemed to have
like rings around his eyes and he seemed to be like slightly off his


GROSS: And his timing in the opening monologue - maybe I'm just trying
to read to much into this.

BIANCULLI: When was the last time he was on his game? If you were going

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: If you were going to use that comparison.

GROSS: But what - I mean, what is – how do you think he is taking what
his future is like now?

BIANCULLI: Depending upon how Machiavellian he really was, he is
probably fine with it. But I don't know. I don't think that he – I think
that Jay Leno, who is a perfect politician when it comes to television
in terms of going out and glad handing with all the affiliates he did,
you know, he has done all. Every time he does a local show somewhere,
when he does stand-up comedy, he will check in with the local general
managers and affiliates.

So, he is a politician. And I think he was stunned at how the affiliates
turned against him. That's the reason he is off the air. And he may be
just as stunned now that the public that made him the winner in Leno
versus Letterman is now seemingly turning against him too.

But there's also the possibility that when Jay settles back into NBC in
late night with "The Tonight Show," that that comfort food level that
satisfied people for so long, that they'll accept it again. The question
is how much of a percentage of his former audience in late night will he
lose because of this usurping position.

GROSS: Who made the decision at NBC to end the 10 o'clock Leno show and
move him back to the 11:30 slot?

BIANCULLI: I lay it all, you know, at the desk - I think the buck stops
with Jeff Zucker who has made an unbelievable number of really atrocious
management decisions the last few years, and just keeps failing up and

GROSS: What's another example?

BIANCULLI: Well, the first example would be planning for an orderly
transition of Leno and O'Brien by announcing four or five years before
it was going to happen that it was going to happen. And in those four or
five years Leno remained strong. So they second-guessed that and Leno
himself second-guessed, saying maybe I don't want to leave.

Among the other outrageous decisions, they're trying to, you know,
revive things like "Bionic Woman," and, you know, all these awful NBC
shows, putting a lot of NBC's reputation behind "Father of the Pride,"
an animated show I know you don't remember…

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Siegfried and Roy. Siegfried & Roy's animals, which they put
on the air after Roy was mauled by one of his animals, like, how could
that fail, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: And, you know, but Zucker had "Friends" and "Seinfeld" and
these hit shows and watched them all go away and never bothered to
replace any of them or was never capable of replacing any of them. I
mean, it's a long string.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. Then we'll be back with TV critic
David Bianculli to talk about the new season of "24" and the premier of
"Archer". This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is our TV critic, David Bianculli. Well, David, "24"
returns to television this week and now Jack Bauer is living in New
York. So, how does that change the series?

BIANCULLI: Well, it changes it in terms of momentum a little bit. It's a
different setting.

GROSS: You've seen the preview.

BIANCULLI: I have seen the first four hours.

GROSS: Okay.

BIANCULLI: And they're very satisfying. You know, "24" always starts off
like a fun rollercoaster. And like a rollercoaster, it doesn't make much
sense after you get off it but the ride is lots of fun, and like a
rollercoaster it has dips and, you know, occasional things where it
nothing makes sense and then they go off again.

But it's Jack Bauer who, you know, I think he was dead when we last saw
him, or in a coma. He is alive and he is out of the business and just
when he thought he was out they pull him back in. But it's standard
"24," it's fun.

GROSS: Is Cherry Jones, an actress I really like, still president?

BIANCULLI: In the first four hours, yes. I'm not going to…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: I'm not going to commit her to the whole season but there are
still, they do pick up on subplots having to do with that and with
Jack's own family. So, they have remembered the past this year.

GROSS: And finally, David, there's a new series premiering tonight that
you like. It's called "Archer." It's a cartoon about a spy that's on the
FX Network.


GROSS: Tell us about it.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, well, this is both a recommendation and a warning
because it's a cartoon show but it's a show from the guys who did
"Sealab 2021," and "Frisky Dingo," which are weird shows on "Adult Swim"
on, you know, the Cartoon Network. So, adult is the key word here.

I am surprised by how well written it is and how funny it is. And how
the characters, it's like – it's like a very adult "Get Smart" and it's
very funny and the characters are very well delineated. If you're
expecting just some nice, fun cartoon, the language, some of the content
everything in this is a lot - is closer to "Nip/Tuck" or - I don't know
what it's close to. But that's why I like it. It really made me laugh
but a couple of times I'm saying, yikes at the same time.

GROSS: I'm assuming – I know you've brought a clip with you - I'm
assuming it's a radio-friendly clip in a show that isn't always radio
friendly in terms of its language.

BIANCULLI: The clip that I've brought is the hero, who is a spy named
Archer, is participating in a simulated torture session. He is being
tortured by one of his colleagues while the head of the organization,
Archer's mother, the spy's mother who runs the organization is watching
from behind closed glass.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Archer")

Unidentified Man: Sterling Archer, code name Duchess, known from Berlin
to Bangkok as the world's most dangerous spy. So for us this is how you
say, it could get but not so good for you, Mr. Archer because you had
information that I want. And this is may be old cliché but we have ways
of making you talk.

Mr. H. JON BENJAMIN (Actor): (As Sterling Archer) What, your little go-
cart battery?

Unidentified Man: Golf cart.

Mr. BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) Whatever - would pick an accent and
stick with it?

Unidentified Man: Listen here, you little.

Unidentified Woman: Son of a bitch.

Unidentified Man: Now you did it.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JESSICA WALTER (Actor): (As Malory) What is the point of the
simulation if you don't take them seriously?

Mr. BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) How can I? Between his lame accent
and the go-cart battery…

Unidentified Man: Golf cart.

Mr. BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) Shut up.

Mr. BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) And speaking of lame, my code name

Ms. WALTER: (As Malory) Was chosen at random by the ISIS computer.

Mr. BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) Random? It was your dog's name.

Ms. WALTER: (As Malory) Oh, Duchess, I loved her so much.

Mr. BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) That it was creepy and pathetic.

Ms. WALTER: (As Malory) And if you were half a smart as she was…

Mr. BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) She wasn't too smart to die from
eating chocolate…

Ms. WALTER: (As Malory) Oh.

Mr. BENJAMIN: (as Sterling Archer) …was she?

Ms. WALTER: (As Malory) Exercise terminated.

Mr. BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) All right, that's lunch then.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Pretty funny. So, that's a clip from the new series, "Archer,"
which premiers tonight on the FX Network.

BIANCULLI: Yes, be warned but be there if you would like that sort of
thing. And I do.

GROSS: Okay, David, thanks so much for being here.

BIANCULLI: All right, thanks a lot.

GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic. He teaches at Rowan
University, writes the online magazine, and is the
author of the new book, "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The
Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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